Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Spirit of Uganda

Queen Teen's class went to see "The Spirit of Uganda," at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa last week, and I got to go with her. The Spirit of Uganda is a performance group made up of Ugandan children and young adults who have all lost parents to AIDS and war. They travel the globe representing the organization Empower Africa's Children. From their website:

Empower African Children is a non-profit organization inspired by success stories from more than 15 years of work with Africa's vulnerable children. Launched in 2006 by child advocate Alexis Hefley - whose work with Ugandan children has earned her international acclaim - Empower African Children's programs provide a fresh new approach that unlocks the potential of this generation through an innovative education. Its holistic approach to education provides tools for success in life, creating confident, skillful, visionary leaders.

Uganda has the highest number of orphans of any country in the world. The funds raised during the tour go to the orphanage and education program supported by Empower Africa's Children. The performance also shares the beauty and excitement of Ugandan music and dance, which I admit I knew almost nothing about.

The only things I knew about Uganda were Idi Amin,  AIDS, and the persecution of homosexuals. I didn't even know where exactly the country was located in Africa. Watching the performance made me curious, so I went on line and explored the history and culture of Uganda. With Lake Victoria as its southern border, Uganda is a part of the Nile river delta, rich with fish, game and plants. But it is a poor country, with more than 50% of the population under the age of 15 and the average lifespan for women age 52 (47 for men). These are the facts you'll get from reading Wikipedia, which could paint a mighty bleak image of Uganda, or any African country for that matter. What the Spirit of Uganda shows us is the heart and soul of the nation, not the hardship. The country is rich with resources and people. The humans who live there struggle, but also create beauty. Seeing the children dance while listening to the drums and songs helped me understand the strength of the people of Uganda, and made me want to visit there. Maybe I will someday.

As Queen Teen's Mobility teacher, it was my job to drive her and a friend to the theatre, and then arrange for them to go back stage to meet some of the performers. It's very hard for Queen Teen to see and understand what's happening on stage, even from the front row, so seeing a performer up close is really helpful.

We were guided back stage by the center's Education Program Director, who has been incredibly helpful every time Queen Teen has gone to see a show there. The performers, ages 11 through 20, were fabulous. Several dancers came out to meet Queen Teen and show her their costumes. They got really close so she could see what they were wearing, including the feathered belts around their waists and the bells on their ankles. And they talked directly to her, waited for her response, allowed her to touch their clothing and shake their hands. No one seemed nervous around a deaf-blind young woman in a wheel chair; they treated her like any other student wanting to meet performers before a show. The generosity of the young performers and the kindness they showed Queen Teen, without any hint of pity, impressed me greatly. (Here's a link from the Wells Fargo Center blog, and if you scroll to the bottom of that page, you'll see a picture of Queen Teen in her pink coat meeting the performers.)

And the show impressed everyone, including Queen Teen. She loved the drums and the dances, but got a little lost with the story telling (hard to understand when you can't hear the guy talking and both you and the person interpreting don't know enough ASL to help). Toward the end of the show, the storyteller invited us all to stand and dance with the performers. I jumped up and held out my hands to Queen Teen, who surprised me by standing, gripping my hands tightly, and dancing with the rest of the audience. She was grinning like a little kid and dancing as wild as her body would let her without falling. I kept a tight grip on her so she could lift her legs and flap her arms. When the dance was over, she said, "You thought I couldn't dance!" She was still grinning when the show ended, and she clapped as hard as her little hands could. 

If The Spirit of Uganda comes to your town, go see it.  You will be inspired and thoroughly entertained. Tell them Queen Teen sent you.

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